Design Domination Podcast Episode #131: When Designers Should Turn Down Work

When you take on work that isn’t a good fit with your skills and expertise, it can result in a bad testimonial, no referrals and the work not being profitable. Find out when graphic designers should turn down work from a prospect or existing client.

In this episode of Design Domination, I’m talking about when designers should turn down work from a prospect or existing client.

I wanted to do an episode about this because this happened to me recently, and I wanted to explain not only what happened but how I handled it.

Someone I did design work for—oh—more than 10 years ago at one client organization recently contacted me about potentially doing work for her again at her new position. She said she had always enjoyed working with me and that she liked my work. So she was hoping I could help out again.

She asked me if I would consider working with them because it was a business, not a nonprofit, which is who I normally work with.

See, it does happen. Just because you target a particular audience or industry doesn’t mean clients won’t still contact you if they want to work with you. This isn’t the first time that’s happened either.

But, anyway, I said yes, I would consider it, because of the nature of their business. Accessibility is important to them.

So I talked with her and the CEO about their needs and what issues they’d been having.

They needed help with their website.

They needed help with SEO.

They needed help with marketing materials—designing new ones and having some that they could update themselves.

They needed help with social media templates.

As we talked, I found out their website is not in WordPress. I either work in WordPress or do straight HTML. I don’t know other platforms. I won’t work in other platforms.

I don’t do SEO, and I am not interested in learning it, offering it or managing it. I refer it out.

They wanted their marketing materials designed in a way that they could edit them and still be accessible. I don’t design in Word, and I focus on accessibility work in InDesign.

For the social media templates, to allow clients to be able to edit them and create new ones themselves, I suggested Canva. That wouldn’t work for them based on the platform they use. Maybe it would be workable if I looked into their platform. Maybe it wouldn’t be.

At first, before I found out all these details, this sounded like it could be a lot of work that could be a good fit. Finding out more details, though, not so much.

How I Would Have Reacted in the Past

How I reacted to finding out these details was very different than it would have been several years ago.

Back then, I would have said, “OK, I’ll look into your website platform and see how I can still help you.”

I’d spend hours doing some research on my own time, not billing them for any of it, and then I would have probably had to send some e-mails or chat messages with customer support for the platform to get some questions answered after doing some research.

I would know this project would take more time than it usually would because I’d have to spend some time learning. Once I got into the back end of the platform, more things would probably come up. I wouldn’t be confident about how good a job I could do, and I certainly didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I might end up looking incompetent to the client.

As for the SEO, I would have not very confidently said, “OK. Yes, I can help with that” and then hired someone I know who does that work. I would have subcontracted and managed the work and taken the responsibility for it as opposed to just referring it out.

For their marketing materials and social media templates, I may have said, “Sure. I’ll go ahead and design them in whatever program,” even though it was one I’d never used, didn’t use all the time or that I hated using. It would take a lot longer and present design limitations. I may also have to do things differently in that program if I was able to do them at all.

I would have been trying to make all these adjustments to fit myself into their project.

I would have not been profitable, because I’d be spending time learning as I went or just spending way too much time doing things by not using the right tools for the job or ones that I wasn’t used to using.

I would have been miserable working in programs I didn’t like or trying to make them do something they couldn’t.

I would have been kicking myself for taking on the work in the first place because I didn’t like it and I knew I wasn’t going to make enough money to compensate myself for even just the time I’d spent.

I may have felt resentful toward the client. I would surely have been embarrassed if my work wasn’t up to my usual standards too.

So that good rapport I had with this client? This might ruin it.

How I Reacted This Time

How I reacted this time was quite different.

I not only said, “I work in WordPress, and I no longer offer maintenance plans, so I cannot help with maintaining your website.” I said it very confidently. I didn’t say it like I was apologetic or disappointed about it. That’s key.

About the SEO, I said, “I don’t do SEO, but I know a few experts who specialize in that. That’s what you need. I’d be happy to refer you to them.”

For their marketing materials, I said, “Here’s how I can help you with that. I work in InDesign, and if you want the PDFs from there to be accessible, you can’t just go edit them later, like you were suggesting.”

For their social media templates, I told them I could create them in Canva, but, after they said more about how their social media platform worked, I said it didn’t sound like that would be a good solution.

At this point, I felt almost like I was talking my way out of any potential work. But that was fine.

I wasn’t going to go off and do any free research. I wasn’t going to risk being unprofitable. I wasn’t risking getting a bad testimonial or no referrals.

I totally owned what I do and what I don’t do, and I was very confident about that.

I didn’t try to be everything to them. I didn’t try to make them happy by saying I’d help them with work I would not be happy doing or good at.

I knew they’d get better results getting help from people who do that work and work in those platforms. But it wasn’t going to be me for that work.

I was actually serving them better by saying no to what I did not do or did not do well, and telling them to go elsewhere for that type of work.

I didn’t feel badly about it at all. I did not see it as a missed opportunity. I saw it as just not a good fit.

I remember from my early days of freelancing how embarrassed and upset with myself and resentful toward the client I felt when I took on a project I shouldn’t have.

I was asked to design something in Word. It had forms.

I hated working in Word, which I am sure you can relate to… I knew nothing about forms either.

The client kept asking me to try to do this or that, but I just couldn’t seem to give them what they wanted, even after hours of research.

I didn’t like looking or feeling incompetent either. I was supposed to be the designer. Why was the client having to tell me how to do certain things? Shouldn’t I be able to do this?

I knew I would not only get no referrals from this client for the work on this project. I might actually get bad word of mouth.

I remember that feeling, and I don’t ever want to feel it again.

When Designers Should Say No

So my advice to you…

When a prospect or existing client contacts you about work, assess the project.

Ask yourself:

  • Is this work I am good at?
  • Is this work I have experience doing?
  • Do I understand what the work entails?

It’s not only OK to say no. It’s OK to say, “I don’t do that,” or “I know someone who does that. Let me give your their contact info.”

Don’t be apologetic about it. You are doing them and yourself a favor by not taking on projects that aren’t a good fit.

You’re not supposed to take on every job that comes your way. You don’t have to take on work just because a client asks you to.

Change your mindset about saying no. Saying no is not a missed opportunity.

It’s vital to say no to work that isn’t a good fit, because then:

  • You have time to take on work you do well.
  • You won’t risk getting a bad testimonial.
  • You won’t risk not getting referred to other clients.
  • You won’t risk not being profitable.
  • You won’t be seen as a jack of all trades, which can get you more respect.

So next time you get approached for a project, think about these things and save yourself a headache and your reputation.


  • Thanks for another great episode, Colleen, and another super helpful resource in addressing two different inquiries I received today from my agency client to quote on services I don’t provide: presentation PPT decks and Mailchimp email template (unless static graphics done in PSD). The “old me” would have stressed, searched, researched, and watched multiple tutorials in effort to talk about, quote on and pull off the work… in order to get the work. These days, I’m way more confident in saying “no, not my wheelhouse.” And I don’t have anyone to refer them to and that’s okay, too. I really appreciate your guidance and personal experience and expertise that validates it. 🙂

    1. Thanks for checking it out, Lilly, and for sharing that. That’s great! Yes, I remember that feeling of stressing and researching to provide a quote. It’s like you’ve done some of the work before getting the work, making it not profitable even if you do get it.

  • This is a terrific response to a bad fit. I too have been asked to do things I don’t know. I am a print designer and I love it. This is my area of expertise. I don’t want to be a web designer. Also, another reason to turn down a job is terribly low compensation. I have done this twice in the last two weeks. I always remember to be gracious about it and to let them know that if their budget changes, to please get in touch. You never know!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Siri. And, yes, I see so many print designers who feel like they have to learn how to build websites. Great advice about being gracious and leaving the door open for future opportunities! 🙂

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